Who is to hold power in open societies? The ones who listen but do not speak, the ones who cannot gain further, the ones who conceal nothing, the ones who accept equality between tribes, the ones who accept inconvenient evidence. Is the human species presently capable of this? Probably not.
The cringe of “God Bless America”
First sung on Armistice Day in 1938, a day to celebrate the end of WWI, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was ultimately used to compel for victory in war. Since 9/11 almost every professional baseball park will play the song during the 7th-inning stretch. That’s almost 2,500 times from April to October. This is going beyond a polite nod to senior citizens who grew up in a ‘different’ era. This is clearly trying to foster some kind of war-time patriotism, with a little bit of ‘old-time religion’ thrown in. As the camera pans around the stadium, some of the more ‘devout Americans’ seem to be taking the moment very seriously. I would say it’s quite astonishing. And rather frightening. Let’s look at the lyrics that are being so passionately bellowed by both genders with hands over their hearts (seriously):
God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home. (Repeat)
Poetic, touching, emotional. But whoa. Ok, let’s think this through, shall we? Let’s start with a few basic facts.
- 28% of professional players were born outside the country. That means that about 250 people, including many of the best players in the game, are looking around during the seventh inning wondering “whahh?”
- A significant percentage of attendees and television audience members were born or live outside the country.
- A significant percentage of attendees and television audience members do not have supernatural faith of any kind nor believe in any kind of supernatural power, or simply have never bothered to waste time thinking about such an idea.
- There are about 200 countries (nation-states) in the world.
From the lyrics, which if believed would be seriously problematic for foreign policy and diplomacy, some divine force (I would assume Zeus) is being called to bless (poetic meaning, so, unclear) the residents of the fifty states of the USA (it’s not clear whether US territories are also included, like the Virgin Islands, Guam, or even Puerto Rico—a massive exporter of MLB talent). Here are some implications:
- Zeus should bless the destination of their stars, and not their origin.
- You’re hopefully (we’re not sure, that’s why we’re asking for it) going to be blessed because you came to the US to play baseball.
- You can be blessed for now, because you’re here now in the US, but we can’t make any promises for your family back home (assuming it’s not Puerto Rico, which we can cover in this arrangement).
- We also can’t guarantee the blessing will continue when you visit home during the off-season.
- The blessing unfortunately expires when the airplane leaves US airspace, which is determined and enforced by the US Coast Guard.
- The blessing also extends to geographical, territorial areas within US airspace, including everything in the Cleveland city limits, Yosemite National Park, and the Everglades.
- We’re not interested in talking about Zeus’ blessing of Zimbabwe or Greenland or Tibet (if you support independence). What only matters to us is that Zeus blesses the residents of the fifty US states and territories. Within US airspace. And not on holiday.
- Damn it. Ok, the residents can keep the blessing when they go on holiday, but it can’t be renewed until a new prayer is said when they get back.
- Shit. Ok, the residents have the blessing when they’re abroad. But its strength weakens the further they go.
- Fuck. The strength of the residents’ blessing is directly proportional to their proximity to a US territory.
Someone might say, “Well, we’re not asking Zeus to avoid blessing other countries and their residents. We’re just requesting a particular blessing of America. Nothing against other countries.” Then why not the lyric, “God Bless the World” or “God Bless His Creation”? If one believes in Zeus, and assuming Zeus created the world, why not just ask for his blessing over everything? Well, that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and it certainly won’t get more men to enlist.
The nationalistic element is entirely absurd and so pathetically outdated. But what does ‘bless’ mean, anyway? I presume it means some kind of a transmission of grace, euphoria, luck, virtuosity, or health from a divine source. So, the people singing are asking for parcels of good times from outer space. Or beams of pulchritude. Or mysts of raw divinity. I guess. And that’s cool. But, are we doing this out of respect for the elderly? That could be a vaguely acceptable reason, if they represented the largest consumer base. But they don’t. So why are we doing this?
The song is meant to inspire and reinforce patriotic feelings in what is fundamentally a global setting. All events are local (they take place somewhere). But with technology, local events are known everywhere. So, shouldn’t we be embarrassed to witness its playing and singing in front of our favorite players, relatives, friends, and neighbours, who were not “blessed” with the genetic accident of a USA birthplace?
Now, someone might say, “Let them have their national song. We’ll keep ours.” If a musical piece has an element of national pride it, first of all it’s silly. Not evil. Just silly. Ok, keep it, belt it out if you want. It’s objectively pathetic, though apes we remain. But, it simply cannot have a national AND spiritual element. That’s just a terrible mixture, which humanity certainly has some experience with. Surely we could all agree that continued singing of this song cannot contribute to the reduction and avoidance of present and future armed conflict? And after all, as the shit-eating primates that we are, the first thing we need to do is reduce the killing. Not eliminate. No hope for that. Just try to reduce.
I can’t help but cringe when I hear this song, because it writhes in political and religious ignorance. And we continue to celebrate it. “Ladies and gentlemen, please rise and remove your caps…” No thanks.
Fox News may be starting to crumble
It seems that Fox News is finally unraveling, as Roger Ailes’ right-hand-man (a PR whiz) was sacked possibly because he fed critical info to the author of the real Ailes biography (due out in January 2014, “The Loudest Voice in the Room”).
In the preemptively-written authorized bio (as he was anticipating a bleak depiction), Ailes is portrayed as a hard-working, straight-talking tough guy with noble intentions. But as we’re soon to learn more about, he is responsible for creating pejorative noise in an expanding echo chamber around thematically-neutral topics that are not perfectly congruent with:
A) a pre-counter-culture, idealised American landscape of strong-willed individuals climbing social ladders with booming small, medium, and big business, completely oblivious and immune to satire
B) the thinly-veiled strategy, as well as the momentary impulses, of senior GOP officials who often are (or invested in) those seeking re-election
We all (or is it most of us?) know that Fox News under Ailes could not be further from actual journalism. But, its impact on policy and elections, and the nurturing of astonishingly ignorant ideas and positions, is so depressing because it is so significant.
[ Nothing needs to be said about the Glenn Becks, Alex Joneses, or Westboro Baptists of the world, because only a handful of people are actually listening. Fox News, however, will make $1.11 billion this year from subscription fees before it ever sells a single commercial (Kagan, 2013; Huffington Post, 2013). It will average over two million nightly prime-time viewers this year with a median age of almost 66. Sadly, Fox News matters.
There is plenty of commentary and analysis on the mirroring of GOP strategies by Fox News talking points (from ‘B’ above; see Media Matters for America for more). I have a few thoughts on (A). ]
It seems to me that most people who watch Fox for news do so because they know they’re unlikely to hear something they cannot understand. The ‘news’ is packaged so that it can be related to the old days. Luddites, traditionalists, religionists, old east-coast elitists believing themselves to be entrusted with the retooled legacy of European aristocracy, the mentally unresponsive, the gleeful housewife, and The Wise Hick, all gather ‘round the TV to hear Bill O’Reilly tell us how the world is changing for the worse.
The stench of nostalgia is so thick, it reinforces for me a most painful truth: human society evolves, on the whole, very slowly, but just fast enough to make it excruciating for anyone who sees the future as an opportunity to correct mistakes. When we look carefully at our past in the present, we immediately see extreme horrors and blunders (racism, sexism, war) and their legacy. And yet, it would not be difficult to find someone who believes it actually was better in the old days.
Now, this is something for small town elderly, surely. Unless, of course, you are the chief agent of the largest news group on the planet. He is actually quoted as saying [if he were president today] he:
[…] would sign no legislation, create no new regulations, and allow the country to return to its natural, best self, which he locates, with modest social amendments, somewhere in mid-western America circa 1955.
That’s about what I figured for the Fox News demographic: people who actually desire that. And, as a product, one cannot be shocked to find such a thing exists. But, for the staff to actually believe in the message? When such people have extraordinary power, well…that’s how you get a backwards-facing America with a strange and uninformed perspective potentially comprising 40% of the electorate. When the generation with the most economic power steers society towards a reenactment of some vision of their childhood, the weaker generations are forced to expend vast amounts of resources in order to recoup some of the losses.
That is one of the most interesting things about this whole mess: we’re talking about the baby-boomers, who then became the most socially-revolutionary generation in human history. This is not orthodoxy, or pure traditionalism. This is just selfishness that happens to sell well to people who are also confused. Most of the programming is basically people shouting that they don’t understand society, and their lack of comprehension makes them angry. I think that is what Roger Ailes and Karl Rove do on a daily basis. Then they go and hire confident and charismatic entertainers to relay the confusion, just like a preacher with nothing substantial to contribute. This confusion becomes a catalyst for group-identity formation, and it’s a very lucrative enterprise when they can huddle under a party banner—which Rupert Murdoch is quite happy about.
[ There are other key players here, e.g. the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, who are also billionaire religious fundamentalists directly responsible for increasing violence in the Middle East. Thanks, guys. ]
The staff changes at Fox could mirror some kind of internal consternation about the need to perform better in 2016+ (again, the network’s direct link to GOP candidates), and a disagreement over which absurd programming tactics to employ whilst increasing ratings. And perhaps the ex-PR chief will comment on that later—or we read about in the book.
So, if Fox’s stranglehold on conservative America is weakening, or about to weaken, there may be room for optimism—particularly for quality conservative candidates wherever they can or may exist (e.g. where we talk about gun ownership, protectionism, or public sector reform, and NOT about an LGBT or non-Christian invasion, or ‘America the world leader’, or any use of the word ‘socialism’). Fox’s treatment of mildly-worthy conservative candidates has, historically, been awful. As Ailes’ current contract runs through 2016, it’s possible we could see a moderate turn to correct the errors of 2012. I suspect, though, that we’ll probably see them sabotage the complicated even more, with more female anchors to counter-balance the Hilary hate.
Democracy (in any form) is ‘the default’, not ‘an option’
To authoritarian governments and their sympathizers:
The more we learn about the physical world, and the paths our fellow primates have taken, the more we learn about the openness of things. The indeterminism of the absolute, the inability to separate, the external dependence, the unmapped conditional dependence, the extrinsicality of hierarchies, the construction of norms and values, of classes, of knowledge and learning centralisation, of national identities, of races, of roles, and the shameless attempts to see order of some kind as natural or intrinsic. Even the objects that we think we see, are, demonstrably, temporary, flickering aggregates in an endless ocean of mysterious particles and fields, colliding and disappearing. The molecule, the apple, the person, the planet: these are but approximated individuals, consisting of tiny shards lingering just long enough in friendly conditions for mammals to see them as things.
Unrestricted, metaphysical free will must be an illusion, and yet, any ascription of total determination is as frail a construction as the myth of choice. Human history is an endless parade of truth-defenders, often unwittingly and predictably making things zero or one, good or evil, expensive or cheap, bloody or peaceful. Our finest attempt at refinement—mathematics—is actually the least refined attempt outside of itself. Wherever we turn, we are splattered by reason for doubt—a healthy, persisting scepticism—always reminding us that X at t1 is not the same as X at t2.
Because we build our own histories, and our own interpretations of them, which we have historically often shared, imposed, and installed, we cannot, in the face of this openness, allow ourselves to stultify another’s. All existence—all things physical, in some manifestation—is open and indifferent, ready for us to ascribe properties to it. Some will rise above others in some domain, to capitalise, to snatch, to self-soothe, but their superiority will be confined to their own minds—and dependent on our subscription to a given constructed value. Success and failure are derived from our own regles du jeu.
So, we make bargains, build a few huts on the beach, never excavating, never concretising, never pretending that laws transcend the societies they were designed to protect. Contrary to our cultural history, mutability is to be cherished, and not its inverse. This makes our actions more important, and this should encourage a longer, wider vision of own existence, without melancholy and isolation. Alienation and frustration can only come from misapprehensions, and illusions of determination and closed systems, of immutable laws and global-level impositions. Nobody always fails: they just lose whatever game they had designed or we had condoned.
Democracy (in any form) is not a western ideal. Bottom-up governance is the only known political means of actually enabling human agency, of opening it up, of reducing barriers to it, of maximising choices. It celebrates it. It depends on it. It has no author: it is a web, much like that which surrounds and penetrates us. It flows without boundaries, without ends, without beginnings, without purpose. We share, and we affect, and our choices, and our awareness of them, grows.
We should not say there is no truth. We could say that a truth cannot constrict. And, since democracy is the archetype of political openness, of revision, of flexibility, of many nodes, of asymptotic refinement, it is the one, in principle, which cannot constrict. Its institutions are meant to resonate with our social bargains, which protect against statistical threats. A good democracy is one that minimises barriers to individual and collective human agency whilst preserving the bargains that agency had collectively prescribed.
I do not believe in democracy (in any form). It is not an experiment. It is not the guilty pleasure of populist governments. It is not a buzzword. It does not have a shelf life. It is also not an opinion of mine that maximising individual human agency is optimal. I am writing here to say that it is the only form of governance that resonates with what we know about both physics and human culture. It is painfully obvious that any and all political power is built, so I know that people are, in principle, unrestricted. Whether or not people see the world in this same way is irrelevant. And, we can talk about social education and institutional reform at length, but people’s choices are limited only by their imagination.
The only bargain we all must strike is the one that enables human agency in the social sphere, and this is because it does not restrict within it. So, this message is intended for those who desire transcendent order, or those who wish to maintain power for power’s sake: that which you think you have is of unfathomable insignificance. And, with any attempt to proselytise the oblivious, comes the empty madness of your futility. Control, perpetuated by the spectacle of order and blind traditionalism, was always illusory. The sooner you disassemble the rusty machine, the better.